The first thought that popped into my mind when I came across the name "Cowboy Bebop" was that it's probably a cheesy shoujo anime set in the Wild West. There are some really bad shoujo anime that I've watched, and I wondered what the hype on Cowboy Bebop was all about. Then I watched the whole 26 episodes (and the movie). It disproved my assumptions with two interesting things:
It's called "Cowboy Bebop" because it's about bounty hunters (the so-called "cowboys") living in a spaceship called Bebop, and,
It's anything BUT a cheesy shoujo anime. It's shounen, with all the martial arts and the kick-butt action and the spaceships and the sexy women and the crude jokes that only guys (and a few girls) appreciate.
O-hhh, o-kaaay, I told myself. But that still doesn't answer why it's so famous there's lots of Cowboy Bebop shrines in the Internet created by both guys and gals alike.
Jet reminds me of Barett in Final Fantasy VII: dark, burly, with an artificial arm resulting from his previous stint as a police officer, but he departs from the stereotype goon persona with his passion for bonsais and ability to cook (as long as he has something to cook). Most of the time, he prepares quick-cook ramen (yeah, those stuff still exist in the future) and other instant nibbles since he and Spike are always broke.
As for Spike, he's the typical gunslinger and martial arts extraordinaire: lean, with a head of unruly hair that has a tendency to curl, and a devil-may-care outlook. He's born in Mars, used to be a member of a syndicate, and is seemingly hung up on a woman called Julia. Since Jet and Spike have appointed themselves bounty hunters (two among hundreds in the universe), they always watch a TV show (yep, television still exists too) that serves as a bulletin about wanted criminals throughout outer space with certain amounts of bounty on their heads. Sometimes, Jet and Spike manage to chase and catch the criminals so they're able to afford the woolong (their monetary unit) to buy food for themselves. More often than not, the criminals give them the slip, or else die before they can turn them over to the police.
It is through these mishaps that they acquired three other characters in Bebop. There's Ein, a "data dog" who was "dog-napped" by one of the criminals Jet and Spike were hunting, but the Welsh corgi ended up getting "adopted" by the Bebop crew (they had no choice in the matter). Then there's Faye Valentine, one of the wanted criminals they were set to catch but who ended up being an unwanted crew of the Bebop. She would always cheat them on the bounty by hunting down the criminals by herself. And then there's Ed, a computer hacker who looks like a boy at first (and second, and third, and fourth) glance. It's only later when it was revealed that Ed is actually a girl. She finds a kindred spirit in Ein, who like her is often ignored by the adults (unless they need Ed's expertise in hacking down a computer system) and girl and dog often go off on their own adventures.
The series also spawned a movie called Knocking on Heaven's Door. It's pretty long, almost a couple of hours, and occurs somewhere between the last few episodes of the TVshow (where some continuity can be established). The movie can also be watched even without seeing the TV series, since it can pretty much stand for itself, but of course it's still preferable if you've watched the TV series; it will make you appreciate the Bebop characters more. The movie deals with a criminal called Vincent Volaju with a 300 million woolong bounty on his head. No wonder it's made into a movie; he has the biggest bounty so far. Vincent killed lots of people with the use of a mysterious nanovirus that was described to act like the HIV virus (the scientific and medical explanations are plausible to some degree). The movie is as action-packed as the TVepisodes, although not as funny, which may be one of the reasons I found it a bit tedious, but it's still worth watching for the fact that the TV series is good.
There's always a different criminal in every show, but there may be characters that appear every now and then. One of them is Vicious, a member of the syndicate Spike used to belong in, and who plays an important role in Spike's life (i.e., besides Julia). Vicious' appearance reveals bits and pieces about Spike's past. Other episodes also dwell on the pasts of other characters (well, except for Ein). Faye Valentine was later revealed to have been cryogenically preserved for more or less half a century, so she's not necessarily as young as she looks (with her gaping neckline and her skimpy undies). Jet used to have a special woman in his life (surprise, surprise!) and that his artificial arm was the result of a friend's treachery. Ed actually has a family; her father has been looking for her, although it's kind of weird because he abandoned her again later (eh?). There's always a nugget of their pasts that is shown, so each episode is never tedious to watch.
As for romantic elements, that's probably one area that would disappoint shoujo fans: Spike can't get over Julia. Ever. I was always wishing while I watched the series that he and Faye would somehow get entangled romantically. No such luck though. Spike remained faithful to Julia till the very end, which elevated him to the status of one of the most desired guys in anime-dom (in my opinion). Although if you watch the last few epsiodes closely, you'd suspect Faye was having some feelings for Spike...
Artwork is great, which is a relief because Cowboy Bebop is from the producers of the highly-budgeted Vision of Escaflowne (I read somewhere that Cowboy Bebop was just as highly budgeted). I don't like the artwork of Escaflowne much, particularly their big noses, and I'm glad I didn't catch sight of Spike or Faye having curved, large and pointed noses like Van's and Hitomi's.
The soundtrack is superb: mostly soulful jazz by Yoko Kanno, you'd wonder if Kanno's really the same person who composed the score for Escaflowne (which was mostly orchestral/classical in theme). I'm not a fan of jazz, but the opening song "Tank!" grows on you. The lyrics are mostly (if not all) English, kind of a refreshing change from all the J-pop music I hear in most anime. Even the movie has a song with a similar title (Knocking on Heaven's Door; nope, it's not the one by Guns 'n Roses). The titles of the songs are ingeniously funny too. There's this one song entitled "Felt-Tip Pen", for the simple reason that the music was played after Faye drew eyebrows on Ein with a felt-tip pen (see my favorite scenes/episodes). Oh yeah, the titles of each episodes were also cunningly thought out, and all of them in English, too (e.g. "Ballad of the Fallen Angels", "Sympathy for the Devil", etc.).
Overall, Cowboy Bebop is an experience. That's saying a lot, because I'm usually pro-shoujo (I used to be a Moonie, after all). There isn't much eye candy here; unless you're a guy, then Faye Valentine is enough excuse to ogle on, but watching all 26 episodes and the movie can also make Spike look dashingly handsome in the girls' eyes. Heck, his loyalty to Julia is enough to make me sigh. Then again, Vicious can look hot too (if not for his small irises). Mangaka Hajime Yadate really did a terrific job.
Some of the characters' antics are simple but executed in such a way that you'll be laughing for minutes (hours even, when you remember what you've watched and it'll set you laughing all over again). Then there's the premise that the future may turn out to be similar to the one shown in Cowboy Bebop; everything in there from the junk-assembled spaceships to the kind of forbidden drugs to the different Mafia-esque syndicates to the viruses is just so believable.
Best of all, Cowboy Bebop is a natural for a shounen anime. Others focus on the good, the bad, and the gray area in between (Neon Genesis Evangelion is a perfect example). Cowboy Bebop does neither. I've never seen anime characters more realistic and more human than the Bebop crew (even Ein can be eerily human-like). Cowboy Bebop definitely has all the ingredients to convert a solid shoujo fan, at least partly, to shounen.